The mockingjay represents defiance in the novel, with the bird’s symbolism deriving initially from its origins. The mockingjay, we learn, came about as a result of a failed project by the Capitol to spy on the rebellious districts, and since then the bird has served as a reminder of this failure and the districts’ recalcitrance—Katniss describes them as “something of a slap in the face to the Capitol.” The mockingjay pin Madge gives to Katniss is at first an emblem of that resistance. Later in the novel, however, the birds come to symbolize a different sort of defiance. Mockingjays become a link between Katniss and Rue, with the two using the birds to communicate. When Rue dies, Katniss decorates her body with flowers as a means of memorializing Rue, but also to defy the Capitol. When Katniss later sees mockingjays, they remind her of Rue, and that memory inevitably stirs her hatred of the Capitol and her wish to rebel, and take revenge, against it. The mockingjay consequently takes on an additional layer of symbolism, representing not only a general rebellion against the Capitol, but also Katniss’s specific desire to defy it.
Panem is the country in which The Hunger Games takes place, and it symbolizes a dystopian United States. The word panem is Latin for “bread,” and given the similarity of the Hunger Games to the gladiatorial Games of Ancient Rome, it recalls panem et circenses, or “bread and circuses.” The phrase refers to the Roman Caesars’ strategy of quelling public discontent by providing the people with plenty of food and entertainment. The entertainment, of course, was largely provided by gladiatorial Games. In the novel, these gladiatorial Games are crossed with reality television to create the Hunger Games. Setting Panem in the location of the present-day United States, and retaining parts of U.S. culture like the mining industry of Appalachia that we see in District 12, draws a link between the two. But the metaphor gets more complicated because of the Ancient Roman influences of Panem. The result is a triple metaphor that uses Panem to draw connections between Ancient Rome and the modern United States, and it suggests that the modern United States has something like its own panem et circenses strategy in place, with reality television taking on the role of the gladiatorial Games.
The metaphor offered by Panem, however, does not align perfectly with Ancient Rome’s panem et circenses formula. For one, that formula is designed to keep the people content, but the people of Panem are decidedly not content, at least not in the poor districts. In fact, the Hunger Games, unlike the gladiatorial Games which appeased the masses, play a significant role in their dissatisfaction. The Games were created as a reminder to the districts of their powerlessness after their uprising against the Capitol ended in defeat, and it is the children of the districts who are drafted involuntarily into the Games to be killed. Second, a key element of the panem et circenses strategy missing from Panem is the bread. Most of the people in the districts are severely underfed, and again this is a cause of much of the people’s discontent. It leads directly to various forms of rebellion, such as Katniss’s illegal hunting and the existence of a large black market in District 12. Rather than commenting on the fictional Panem, it instead comments the real United States in the ways described above, thus offering a valuable criticism of modern culture in the U.S.
The dresses Cinna designs for Katniss not only give Katniss her epithet, “the girl who was on fire,” but also come to symbolize her spirit. Cinna designs the first dress to reflect the main industry of Katniss’s home district, coal mining, and since coal’s purpose is to burn, Cinna creates a dress that would be lit with synthetic flames. This dress begins the association between Katniss and fire while also giving Katniss her epithet, “the girl who was on fire.” That epithet comes to describe Katniss generally, however, and not just how she appears in Cinna’s designs. Haymitch, for instance, explains Katniss’s high training score by saying the judges must have liked her temper and her “heat.” (Katniss also thinks the Gamemakers may have targeted her with fireballs in the arena as a reference to “the girl who was on fire.”) The dresses, notably the first one for the opening ceremony but also the more subdued versions Cinna creates for Katniss’s interviews, serve as outward, nearly literal representations of Katniss’s inner “fire.”